Able Talk

“Incentivize Research to make India a $500 billion BioEconomy by 2030”

Clarion call by ABLE Chairperson Dr Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw during the start of ABLE@20 celebrations

Here are the excerpts of the Vision Talk by ABLE non-Executive Chairperson and Founder of Biocon Group, Dr Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw on November 16, 2022 in Bengaluru


I just thought I would basically start my comments with the size of what we aspire the Indian BioEconomy to be. And if you remember, we had actually chosen a target of $150 billion by 2025 and are well on track to achieve that target and even exceed it. We're at about $80 billion thus far and it's growing very rapidly. And of course, we are talking about 14-15 percent CAGR in recent years and we're well on the track to achieve that goal by 2025.

We also saw that there was an indication that we want to take that number to $300 billion by 2030. And that would also mean that we would have to grow at a very similar CAGR. So, in that same direction, maybe by just accelerating the speed of growth a little more, I do believe that for the 100th anniversary of India's independence in 2047, we ought to at least aim for a $500 billion BioEconomy. And I do believe that this is a pretty conservative target. Let me tell you why? First and foremost, the Prime Minister has actually set the country a target of $30 trillion by the same. So, if you then Dimension $500 billion in the context of $30 trillion, it sounds very small because I really believe that the BioEconomy has to be a very significant component of that $30 trillion Economy. And I guess if you were to take a multiplier effect of that $500 billion, it would make sense. So perhaps we have to contextualize it a little deeper and with more granularity.

But why am I optimistic, that we can very easily build a $500 billion BioEconomy? What do I mean by the BioEconomy? So, I think when we talk about the BioEconomy, it is about the role of Biotechnology in basically building all the supply chains that would be involved in creating a very different agricultural sector. A strong focus on sustainability and when you talk about sustainability you are of course talking about Renewable Energy, you're talking about Bioremediation and you're talking about Biotransformation and Enzyme Technologies to replace a lot of the Industrial processes that are dependent on very polluting Chemical Technologies. And if you look into all of this then it is not the end product that is going to be measured as a part of the BioEconomy but the entire supply chain that gets to deliver on that end product. And that is why I believe that a BioEconomy that dimensions itself at $500 billion is very conservative.

Now, let's look at other aspects of the BioEconomy. Let's look at Agriculture. Agriculture, can derive a huge amount of benefit from biotechnology whether it is Gene-editing technologies or CRISPR. Whether it is the use of AI (artificial intelligence), or hybrid selection. And whether it is many, many other forms of technologies that involve Genomics and other aspects of Agricultural technologies, in terms of even looking at ways of shortening, the cycle of growth etc., Vertical Agriculture, Hydroponics, Sea-farming, etc. I think there's a lot to be done and the opportunities are enormous.

Let's look at sustainability. I think reducing the carbon footprint is every national economy's Target. I think, India is very focused and our Prime Minister has certainly brought a lot of focus on Climate Change and reducing our carbon footprint. And in that of course renewable energy, especially renewable energy, derived from biological resources, is going to be very key component. I was always very excited with using raw material wastes from agriculture to do that. But today, Sea6Energy has also thought beyond waste agriculture; they've actually looked at harnessing seaweed and doing Sea-farming to create biofuels from seaweed. So, you can see that there's a lot of out-of-box thinking when it comes to renewable energy from biological sources. And again, I think that's going to be a huge opportunity for India as an economy and a must have aspect of Renewables for India.

And then we come to, of course, Food, Feed and Nutrition where Synthetic biology and BioPharma. The Biopharmaceutical technologies have a very key role to play. Today of course, India does boast of being The Largest Vaccine Producer in the World and we are certainly amongst the largest producers of generic medicines. But I'm also pleased to say that India is slowly becoming a significant nation when it comes to Biopharmaceuticals. I know that our own company (Biocon) is amongst the largest producers of Insulin and Biosimilars in the world.

And in that same context, I think, what is also very exciting is the opportunity to leverage our very rich and vast talent pool that we have in the country. To engage with the Biotech ecosystem globally, either through services or through partnerships and I think this is happening at all levels, whether it is academic engagement, whether it is bilateral trade, whether it is partnerships between companies’ joint ventures, I think everything is happening because India has a lot to offer.

It's also very important for me to basically talk about technology convergence because I think that's going to be a very important part of this growth that we are targeting. In the information age, data science is becoming extremely important and other aspects of digital technology is allowing us to advance at rapid speed and I think Industry 4.0 is extremely critical in the area of Biotech manufacturing for us to succeed. So, with all this happening, I think India is poised in a very favorable way given the kind of talent that we have both in Biosciences, Information Sciences, Computer Sciences and based on that I do believe that we have a great future ahead.

Now, what is it that will actually allow us to reach that $500 billion BioEconomy. We all know that it takes investment. It takes research and innovation and finally it takes a marketplace to take those ideas to commercial success. And here, I would always like to Benchmark what we are doing to what has succeeded in the world and when we look at the most successful Bio innovation hubs, I think the US has certainly demonstrated that it has an ideal ecosystem where if you look at the Biotech Continuum, you have Seed Capital backing ideas and concepts. You have Risk Capital, backing proof of concepts, and proof of success and then you have Venture Capital that takes over to scale those ideas and finally commercialize those ideas. Capital markets have also played a very key role in taking those ideas to the market. And I think the kind of ecosystem they've had is to basically create a virtuous ecosystem.

I think funding biotech has always been a challenge and the reason being that, it generally takes 10 years to go from Lab to Market and unfortunately most funds, that you know, run out in 10 years. And I think there's always been a challenge because of the gestational nature of biotechnology and the kind of risks associated and the unpredictable risks associated with many, many biotechnologies that has actually seen a kind of sitting on the fence approached by many investors. I think the return on investment has also been extremely disappointing to many investors. So, unless we fix this, and unless we make sure that we provide an exit to investors either through Capital markets or through M&A (mergers & acquisitions), I think you will constantly be stunted.

I know having built a company that is pretty large, you know, where I started in a garage with very small Seed Capital, scraped around for some risk capital and then finally had to basically bootstrap ourselves into some level of scale and after which of course it has been very successful story.

I know that if I hadn't paid back my investors, I wouldn't have had those investors coming back to reinvest in what I was doing. So, I think we need to figure out how we have to do that. India needs to actually come out with policies that incentivize the research because we are not seeing enough investment in research. I think there's been a lot of discussion around that. I think we are always very nervous and risk-averse when it comes to investing in research.

At an industry level, it is certainly very apparent. Most Industries stay clear of taking big risks when they come to Innovation and investing in Innovative research which has a high level of unpredictability. I think the government has done its bit, I know that BIRAC (Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council) has been a huge success, and I want to congratulate the DBT (Department of Biotechnology, Government of India) for actually making BIRAC into such a successful Flagship Venture where BIRAC has taken that risk, provided the Seed and Risk Capital to many, many Innovative companies and many of those companies are here within this room as beneficiaries of that experiment. And I think, BIRAC, I'm sure and we'll see, could get good return on that investment that they have made in many of these companies. Maybe it's very early days yet to really talk about the Quantum of return on investment but I hope that in the foreseeable future, we see a very, very rich return on investment in many of these companies that I hope will succeed in a big way.

One of the things we've also recognized as a group of members at ABLE (The Association of Biotech Led Enterprises) and under the auspices of ABLE that it is vital to have academic incubators. I think incubators that are linked with academic research institutions are certainly vital to generate new ideas and scientifically led ideas that are tempered with a strong sense of research and Innovation and science. And here, I think I would like to call out see C-CAMP (Center for Cellular and Molecular Platforms) which actually is a great partner for the National Center for Biological Science (NCBS). I want to call out BBC (Bangalore Bioinnovation Center) which has basically twinned its effort with IBAB (Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biology), a small research institute of bioinformatics and applied biotechnology. But IBAB itself is now a center of excellence. Then of course, Art Park at is IISc (Indian Institute of Science) and in addition to that what is very unique about Bangalore is the philanthropic capital that has flowed into new research initiatives. Kris Gopalakrishnan’s (Infosys co-founder) Brain Research Center at IISc is one outstanding example of that philanthropy contribution. I know that recently Kris Gopalakrishnan, Rohini Nilekani and myself made a philanthropy contribution to the Science Gallery Bengaluru which again sees itself as a very important startup ecosystem and a research and Innovation ecosystem.

And then you got people like Subroto Bagchi and N S Parthasarathy who have invested big time in setting up the IISc School of Medicine. An MD-PhD program is going to be at the heart of what they're doing. And then you have many, many other such contributors of philanthropy too many institutes. I know Ashok Soota has recently made a small contribution to the Mazumdar-Shaw Center for Translational Research where he wants a focus on Cognitive science, Alzheimer's and a lot of that research is being done in partnership with the Narayana Health Hospital.

What I think we need now is about focused investment in frontier technologies, and even that is happening. We see Synthetic Biology is taking center stage in many, many ways. We've got String Bio here. We've got Jananom here and I think all this is going to be very important as India starts looking at specific sectors where it wants to build skills and scale.

We are seeing Cell and Gene therapy becoming a very active space. And here, we've got companies like Immuneel and ImmunoACT and Dr. Reddy’s, all basically now investing in that sector, and I'm sure in the next five years this is going to be a very attractive sector. We have many companies which are focused on genomics, on Gene editing Technologies. We have many companies that are focusing now on Novel Diagnostics etc. We have companies like Bugworks focusing on the Next Generation antibiotics.

So, I think there's a lot happening in very specialized areas of research, innovation and market opportunities. But I think what is most interesting and exciting about the BioEconomy, is the growing domestic demand for all that we are doing. India is a growing as an economy that is going to move out from being as an economy that is below the poverty line to a consumer-led economy is not too far away. Today of course, we are at a level that is not really conducive to consumerism. Today, we are below $3,000 per capita income. We need to break out at a $5,000 per capita income to really start seeing consumption take off. And once we reach what middle-income countries have as a $10,000 per capita income, that's when you will see strong consumer demand.

What the BioEconomy serves is the basic needs of people, It’s Food, Feed and Healthcare and in our case, I think energy security and sustainability and of course, agriculture in a big way. And here we are serving not just the people with products but we're actually creating jobs across the Continuum. We are creating very complex supply chains which are going to be digitally connected, digitally driven, that's the excitement of this convergence of technology.

So, I think there's a lot of opportunities out there for us to tap as an industry. I think we need to focus on how do we make this ideal ecosystem that gets Investment into the areas that we really want to invest big time because we don't want just small showcase that says We also have this small company or we also are doing this. We need to do things at scale. We need to do things at global scale, because that's the opportunity.

The geopolitical dynamics of today puts us into a very, very unique position. We are now proving to be a preferred destination for research, innovation and manufacturing. Not because we are low-cost, but because we have the skills, the talent, and the scale of talent that is required for global success. That's where investors will invest and I think in biosciences all this time, we haven't been challenging our scientists enough. I think today's education has to go beyond the classroom. Today's scientific education has to be in pursuit of answering questions that have not been answered as yet. Today's scientific temper has to be curiosity-driven, experimental and it must be a scientific temper that knows how to deal with failure. I think as a society and as a biotech community, we need to understand that failure is embedded if you want long-term success in innovation. So, I think investing in high-end research, understanding what it takes to succeed is going to be extremely critical for us to succeed.

At the same time, the world is looking to India and I can't help but quote Our Prime Minister's vision for a digital India where he actually said that, “What I dream is for the world to look at India for the next Big Idea.” That is where we should be. We have myriad problems. Those Myriad problems require very Innovative low-cost solutions and that's where we can play to our strengths. Affordable Innovation is where we need to focus on and that's where the research incentives have to be directed. How do we get into affordable innovation that solves problems for the world.

We just had the eight billionth baby born yesterday. For 8 billion people in the world, healthcare challenges are a plenty. Today, no one can afford a million-dollar cell therapy or a gene therapy. We have to bring it down to more affordable levels and that's where India can do well. We need to innovate those affordable solutions for those 7 billion people. The 1 billion can possibly live in their little Cocoon of million-dollar treatments, but the 7 billion can't. Can we innovate and find solutions for those seven billion who then obviously will be used by the other billion, who are used to paying more for what we can pay less for.

So, I think those are some of the exciting opportunities we have and I think we at ABLE, ought to come out with these kinds of strategies that create this enormous BioEconomy, create these enormous opportunities and exciting ecosystem that can actually generate these new ideas for the future.

So, with that, I'd just like to end by saying, “this is what we should be aspiring for the $500 billion BioEconomy that is changing the world for the better that is bringing to the world transformative ideas and ideas that can actually be useful to a larger number of people on this planet than what it is today.”